Ode: Intimations of Immortality Analysis
Ode on Intimations of Immortality is the glory of English poetry. Even Wordsworth considered it the crown of his work. This is evident from the fact that when he arranged his collected poems for publication he placed it at the end. The Ode was written when he was at the height of his genius, when he had recovered his mental balance after the failure of his hopes in the French Revolution. It was begun in 1801, but finished in 1806.
The Ode is built on a simple but majestic plan. The first four stanzas tell of a spiritual crisis, of a glory that has passed away from the earth and end by asking why and where the glory has fled. The middle stanzas (V-VIII) examine the nature of this glory and seek to explain it by the philosophical doctrines of pre-existence and of recollections from it in childhood. Then the last three stanzas show that though the vision of celestial radiance is lost. there remains much in life to compensate for this loss.
“The three parts of the Ode deal in turn with a crisis, an explanation and a consolation, and in all three Wordsworth speaks of what is most important and most original in his poetry.” (Bowra)
The Ode is memorable for the exposition of Wordsworth’s philosophy of pre-existence and recollections from it in childhood. Before birth man existed in heaven, the ideal world of beauty and glory. In childhood he sees “the vision splendid,” because he (i.e. the soul in him) has the memories of the heavenly life fresh in him. That is why the earth, and every common sight seem to a child “apparelled in celestial light.”
As the child grows up he gradually loses this divine vision. Yet in mature age man can, through calm spiritual contemplation, have glimpses of eternity and find the children playing on its shore. The theory of pre-existence and recollection goes back to Plato, but Wordsworth did not take it from him nor is his application of it Plato’s. He took it rather from Coleridge and Henry Vaughan. Whatever may be Wordsworth’s indebtedness to others, it is the intensity of his personal experience that gives validity to his philosophic theories. He had his own visionary moments. “He believed himself to be immortal because through the objects of sense he had known a lofty exaltation in which he passed beyond time.” (Bowra) In the child’s vision of heavenly pre-existence he saw something very like his own visions
The poem is memorable for the idealization of childhood. Childhood is the most blessed period in human life. It is free from the cares and worries that prey upon the grown man. But its blessedness is not due to this freedom. It is rather due to its memories of a blessed state in another world before birth and its instinctive knowledge of those truths which grown-up men have been toiling hard all their life to know. The child is, therefore, “best philosopher”. “mighty prophet”, “seer blest”. Wordsworth’s glorification of childhood has been the subject of much adverse criticism. Whatever may be the truth in these criticisms it cannot be denied that as we grow into manhood we feel some power, some instinct of joy fall away from us leaving us disillusioned despite the wealth of wisdom and experience of age. As Fowler says, “A certain sense of disappointment and disillusion does come with the experience of life.”
The Ode gives a succinct exposition of Wordsworth’s attitude to nature. He looked upon nature as a great sustaining factor in human life. Nature brings man calm and contentment when he is caught in the cobweb of disappointment and disillusion. She inspires him with those feelings of sympathy and affection that make the sorrows and sufferings of life endurable:
“To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
Wordsworth believed that life in towns corrupts and deadens the finer instincts of men and that they find their true selves only in the presence of natural things. So he prays to nature:
“And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might.”
The Ode not only enshrines noble and lofty thoughts but expresses them in a dignified and majestic language, charged with intense emotion and passion and characterized by lofty imaginative flights. While we read the poem we are carried forward on a surge of impassioned emotion which derives as much from the use of suggestive words coupled with stately metrical form as from the intensity of personal experience. In the lines:
“Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore.
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”
the whole world of emotion and imaginative suggestion seems to have been concentrated. As we read the lines we catch the vista of the eternal sea with its waves swelling and surging forever.
The Ode is, on the whole, written in a selection of language really used by men. It shows no trace of that Wordsworthian quality at which Coleridge complained to Hazlitt: “a corporeal, a matter-of-factness, a clinging to the palpable, or often to the petty” The tone of the poem is set in what is for Wordsworth an unusually lofty key.
The poem abounds in images which add to its mystical overtones. image of light is a recurrent one. Other images are those of palace, yoke, freight, sea, land, shore etc.
The Ode has an unusual form. Wordsworth’s odes are formal and regular. Only here does he build an ode not in repeated stanzas of a fixed form. In fact, the Ode is a development of the Pindaric Ode, invented by Abraham Cowley.
“The stanzas vary in the number and metrical character of the lines; and in each particular stanza there is the utmost variety in the metre and length of the different lines as well as in the order of the rhymes. Wordsworth succeeds admirably, not only in sustaining the music but also in making variations of metre correspond with changes of thought and feeling.” (C.B. Young)